• Quick response douses 8-acre East End fire less than 24 hours after flames claim Diamond Ridge home
By Hannah Heimbuch
As smoke continued to eek out of the Funny River fire on the central peninsula last week, several Homer neighborhoods faced blazes of their own. One of those resulted in the total loss of a large home on Diamond Ridge, owned by longtime local resident Alan Parks.
Less than a full day later, a fire broke out on Sandra Street, an East End Road neighborhood located northwest of McNeil Elementary School.
Kachemak Emergency Services volunteer firefighter James Holliwell responded to both fires, the second of which started just 300 yards from his front door. He and a neighbor, Chris Gordon, were sitting in Holliwell’s yard when they saw a column of smoke rising in the brush between their houses.
Gordon, a former wildland firefighter, and Holliwell immediately went to inspect the smoke, and called it in to emergency services.
“It was really lucky,” Gordon said. “Those were my first couple of days off in a long time. I hadn’t been home at all, and James isn’t usually home in the afternoon.”
While Holliwell stayed with the fire and met first responders, Gordon swung back around to his house, noticing that the wind was pushing it toward his place on Big Dipper Ranch Road.
“By the time I got to my house, five minutes tops, you could hear it coming,” Gordon said. “I got to my house and just turned on the hose and started watering down that whole side.”
Dry spruce and a field of dead grass stood between Gordon and the approaching fire, which eventually got within 50 feet of the house, he said, burning right up to the water lines he’d laid with the hose.
While the fire approached quickly, Gordon said, so did Kachemak Emergency Services and the teams from the Department of Forestry — some of whom he used to work with.
“All of these people that I’ve known in the firefighting world for years, they were walking into my yard,” Gordon said. “Everybody’s response was really quick. It seems like state forestry is doing such a great job, especially the southern peninsula with the aerial attack.”
The cause of the fire is still unknown at this point, said Homer Electric Association spokesman Joe Gallagher. Because the fire began near some HEA equipment, the utility cooperative is working with the Division of Forestry to determine a cause. No HEA equipment was damaged in the fire.
The fire was in control within about four hours of its afternoon call-in, said KES Fire Chief Bob Cicciarella, due largely to the significant response they and other emergency services were able to launch almost immediately.
“We had two tankers, three engines, three brush trucks, and (the Department of) Forestry was there as well with several engines, and a borough hot shot crew later on in the day,” Cicciarella said. “There were two slurry bombers, or retardant planes, and there was a helicopter as well.”
More than 20 of his staff and volunteer firefighters had been up until at least 3 a.m. fighting the Diamond Ridge fire. They were tired, he said, but already in fire mode and had just finished restocking their equipment.
Back in town, Holliwell’s girlfriend Tory Rockefeller was at work at her business, Homer Hounds, when she got a call from her friend Shelby.
“She said, ‘Oh my God, I’m at your house, and there’s flames shooting over it. What do you want me to grab?’”
She told Shelby to get her cats and her camper, thinking she’d be needing somewhere to live if her home burned down. These weren’t the plans she thought she’d be making that afternoon, she said, and she was grateful for the quick response of her friends and firefighters.
“Shelby filled every container in my house with water. Trash bins and pet food cans,” Rockefeller said. “That was kind of crazy to come home to, people getting ready to move all of your property. Another friend of mine showed up with a truck in case I needed him. And by the time I showed up there were multiple planes and helicopters involved.”
Ultimately the wind was keeping the fire from getting much closer to the house, Rockefeller said, and by the time she got home there were firemen between her home and the fire.
“It burned the eastern edge of my property, but not a lot of it,” she said. “But I would say it was a close call.”
While recent rain has greened up the hillside, and warming and cooking fires are currently allowed, Cicciarella said, the public should remember that burn restrictions are still in place.
“It’s still pretty bone dry in that ground,” he said. “We didn’t get the heavy snow load this year that we usually get.”
The ground is very dry just under the surface, Cicciarella said, and last year’s dead grass is a plentiful and waiting tender for stray sparks.
“That was one of the issues on this fire,” he said. “That was really taking off. So the green up didn’t even effect it, there was so much heat.”
Slash burning is still restricted at this time, he said.
KES covers about 214 square miles all around Homer, Cicciarella said, which is how his crews ended up responding to two major fires on opposite ends of town. The KES team includes 51 volunteers and a small paid staff.
The cause of the devastating Diamond Ridge fire is also still under investigation. Friends and neighbors of Parks have set up a Wells Fargo account to collect donations for Parks as he copes with the loss of his home and belongings. The account is under the name “Start Over Fund for Alan Parks,” account number 1495892703.
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